You pay $US60 for many of the new games you play, but how much does a blockbuster game cost to make? Although it is a seemingly simple question, it is actually incredibly difficult to answer.
Of all the opaque video game industry questions, this is perhaps the most opaque. Many in the industry don't even know the budgets of games. It is not unusual for developer working on a big-budget game to have no idea of the game's budget.
Publishers and developers almost never release information on budgets of their games, and publicly traded companies just combine all of their production costs in investor reports, giving little insight into individual game costs. Most commonly, the numbers we see circulated are often guesses from writers or analysts. So budget numbers could vary wildly: one place might say $US60 million, another might say $US15 million.
When we do get specific numbers, it is often only the development or marketing costs, which do not necessarily provide a complete picture of a game's entire budget of development, distribution and marketing costs. Also, specific numbers communicated to the public may not be accurate: like the film industry, it is possible for accounting to play tricks with budgeting to change the appearance of things. In 2009, EA executive Rich Hilleman indicated in a speech that his company "now typically spends two or three times as much on marketing and advertising as it does on developing a game." This formula is not necessarily applicable to every potential blockbuster game — a "AAA game", in gaming parlance — or to every company, but it is fair to say the break-even point for the average AAA game is well above the development budget. Companies also need to recoup marketing and other expenses.
There is no question, however, that the cost to make a AAA games in going up across the board. Last summer, when Kotaku editor-in-chief Stephen Totilo talked to Sony's head of worldwide development, Shuhei Yoshida, about game budgets, Yoshida said budgets for top-tier PS4 games would be "slightly larger" than the $US20 to $US50 million price range he estimated as the development cost for "top PS3 games." Four years ago, Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot estimated that the average production budget for the generation of games following Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 would be $US60 million. In an 2012 investor report, Take-Two admitted some of its "top titles" cost in excess of $US60 million for development alone.
Below, I have a list, pulled from public sources, that marks a first attempt here at Kotaku to get a comprehensive sense of how much money the world's biggest and most expensive games cost. ll the information presented below comes from publicly available sources and all figures should be viewed with appropriate scepticism given the murkiness I described above, though I have tried as hard as possible to find numbers I believe to be accurate.
Eagle-eyed readers may notice the following list lacks some of the more prominent numbers from the past few years, and that is intentional — many of those are rather specious. Leslie Benzies' widely circulated $US100 million development budget for Grand Theft Auto IV was simply an estimate, and according to The Sunday Times article the number came from, Benzies did not actually know how much the game cost and just "[hazarded] a guess." With that sort of admission, I can't help but take The Scotman's claim of a ~£170 million development and marketing spend for Grand Theft Auto V with a grain of salt. Following an incident in which The Wall Street Journal retracted claims that Starcraft II cost $US100 million to develop, Chris Sigaty, a producer on the game, told Gamereactor that, unlike most companies, Blizzard doesn't have any sort of set budget for their games, and spends as much as is necessary to make the games the company wants to make.
Here are budget numbers for a select number of games. When possible, I have indicated whether it is development, marketing or combined costs.
The Possible Price Tags For 115 Video Games, From E.T. To Watch Dogs
Please note: These figures are not adjusted for inflation. Also, development or marketing costs does not represent the total cost of the game. Non-development or marketing costs have been labelled.
E.T. - $US23 million (licensing) - In Master of the Game — a 1994 biography about the late Steve Ross, then-CEO of Atari's then-parent company Warner Communications — Skip Paul, an Atari executive at the time, told author Connie Bruck the company spent $US23 million to secure the licence for the infamous bomb.
Frogger - $US5 million (marketing) - In an early 1984 New York Times piece about the status of the gaming industry, Jerry Thompson, then an executive at Parker Brothers, said marketing costs for the Atari 2600 version of this arcade hit were $US5 million.
Dragon's Lair - $US3 million - According to Jamie Russell's book Generation Xbox, the handdrawn animation for this laserdisc game cost $US1.3 million and the total cost of creating the game and cabinet amounted to $US3 million.
Ultima VII: The Black Gate - $US1 million - In a 1992 interview, Richard Garriott told University of Texas student publication The Daily Texan the seventh entry in the famed RPG series cost $US1 million to develop.
Ground Zero: Texas - $US3 million - A 1994 Chicago Tribune report on interactive movie games claimed Sony Imagesoft's FMV shooter for the Sega CD had a $US3 million production budget.
Mortal Kombat II - $US10 million (marketing) - According to the New York Times, Acclaim spent more than $US10 million marketing this fighting game sequel.
Wing Commander III - $US5 million: The third entry in the Origin space franchise had a budget of almost $US5 million, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Full Throttle - $US1.5 million - While tweeting about the record-breaking Double Fine adventure game Kickstarter, Tim Schafer revealed that his 1995 biker adventure game had a $US1.5 million budget.
Twisted Metal - $US0.8 million - In an interview with IGN, David Jaffe claimed his first car combat game cost $US800,000 to develop.
Crash Bandicoot - $US1.7 million - During a 2004 Australian Games Developer Conference presentation, Naughty Dog cofounder Jason Rubin said the development budget for their signature PlayStation platformer was $US1.7 million.
Wing Commander IV - $US10 million - A 1996 Texas Monthly profile claimed the space combat sequel had a $US10 million budget. Of that $US10 million, $US8.5 million was spent on live-action video sequences, according to Jamie Russell's Generation Xbox.
Crash Bandicoot 2 - $US2 million - Jason Rubin claimed the first Crash sequel cost $US2 million.
Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee - $US2.5 million - A 1998 Forbes article about Oddworld Inhabitants pegged development costs of the company's first game at $US2.5 million.
PaRappa the Rapper - ¥90 million - A 2013 Edge magazine piece about the creation of the seminal rhythm game said the budget was "around 90 million [yen]."
Riven - $US20 million - According to a 1997 BusinessWeek report, the Myst sequel cost $US10 million to develop and an additional $US10 million to market, suggesting a total spend of around $US20 million on the followup to the then-bestselling PC game of all-time.
Grim Fandango - $US3 million - In another tweet about the Double Fine adventure game Kickstarter, Tim Schafer said his last title for LucasArts cost $US3 million.
Thief: The Dark Project - $US3 million - A Game Developer postmortem from lead programmer Tom Leondard said the development budget on the stealth classic was $US3 million.
The X-Files Game - $US6 million - On his resume, a former executive at X-Files Game developer HyperBole Studios claims the FMV adventure game had a $US6 million development budget.
Crash Team Racing - $US2.4 million - Jason Rubin said $US2.4 million was spent developing this kart racer, which was Naughty Dog's last Crash Bandicoot game.
EverQuest - $US3 million - In an interview with PC Zone, EverQuest II producer Andy Sites claimed the development budget on the first game was $US3 million.
Gabriel Knight 3 - $US4.2 million - In a Gamasutra postmortem, the project's technical lead Scott Bilas revealed that the development spend on the adventure game sequel was $US4.2 million.
Resident Evil 2 $US1 million - Development costs on Angel Studios' Nintendo 64 port of the horror sequel were $US1 million, according to a Game Developer postmortem.
Shenmue - $US47 million - In a GDC 2011 presentation, Yu Suzuki said the infamously expensive game's total cost was $47 million, not $US70 million as commonly reported.
System Shock 2 - $US1.7 million - According to a Game Developer postmortem by Irrational cofounder Jon Chey, the sci-fi horror sequel's budget was $US1.7 million.
Unreal Tournament - $US2 million - In his Game Developer postmortem, former Epic Games programmer Brandon Reinhart said the multiplayer shooter's development budget was $US2 million.
Black & White $US5.7 million - Peter Molyneux's Game Developer postmortem for the game said the god game cost $US5.7 million to develop.
Dark Age of Camelot - $US3.1 million - Mythic cofounder Mark Jacobs told Gamasutra in 2008 the fantasy MMO cost $US2.5 million to develop and an additional $US650,000 to market, indicating a combined launch spend around $US3.1 million.
Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX 2 - $US4 million (marketing) - In a press release, publisher Acclaim revealed that the extreme sports sequel had a marketing budget of $US4 million.
Jak and Daxter - $US14 million - Jason Rubin said Naughty Dog's followup to Crash Bandicoot cost $US14 million to develop.
Freedom Force - $US2 million - Ken Levine told an MIT audience the retro superhero strategy game cost $US2 million to develop.
Hitman 2 - €3.5 million - In an article from a Danish governmental trade council's English-language publication, IO Interactive managing director Janos Flösser said the Hitman sequel had a development cost of 3.5 million euros.
Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers - $US20 million - The first console game based on Peter Jackson's famed film adaptation had a $US20 million budget, according to a former Stormfront Studios technical director.
NFL 2K3 - $US15 million - Then-Sega COO Peter Moore told The Wall Street Journal the budget for the company's second multiplatform football game was about $US15 million.
Enter the Matrix - $US67 million - TheLos Angeles Times reported that development costs on this game tie-in were $US20 million, a figure the paper said "[did not include] marketing expenses or the cost of the extra hour of movie footage [included in the game]." Atari also paid $US47 million to acquire The Matrix licence and developer Shiny Entertainment from Interplay, who originally owned both the licence and developer.
Jak II - $US15 million - Development costs on this divisive gritty, open-world sequel were $US15 million, according to Jason Rubin.
Toontown Online - $US18 million - A former Disney software engineer claims this now-shuttered kids MMO cost $US18 million.
Uru: Ages Beyond Myst - $US12 million - The cost of the fourth Myst game was more than $US12 million, according to an Associated Press report.
Call of Duty: Finest Hour - $US8.5 million - The first Call of Duty console game's development contract, released as part of a lawsuit between developer Spark Unlimited and Activision, pegged development costs for the game at $US8.5 million.
City of Heroes - $US7 million - A 2004 Forbes profile of then-developer Cryptic Studios claimed the development cost of the superhero MMO was $US7 million, and publisher NCSoft budgeted $US18 million for annual marketing, maintenance and support costs.
Driv3r - $US34 million - Bruno Bonnell, then-chairman of publisher Atari, told The Wall Street Journal marketing and development budgets for the tepidly received open-world game were both around $US17 million, bringing total spend to around $US34 million.
Half-Life 2 $US40 million - In a 2004 interview, Gabe Newell admitted the game's development cost in excess of $US40 million.
Halo 2 - under $US20 million - A spokesperson for Microsoft told The Wall Street Journal development costs on Bungie's sequel were under $US20 million.
Jak 3 - $US10 million - Jason Rubin's presentation said the last game of Naughty Dog's trilogy, produced in half the time of its predecessors, cost $US10 million to develop.
World of Warcraft - $US200 million - In a September 2008 analyst conference call, Blizzard disclosed that the cost of four years of post-launch upkeep on the blockbuster MMO was $US200 million.
Advent Rising - $US4 million - In a story about the game, MTV reported that Chair Entertainment spent $US4 million developing their sci-fi epic.
Call of Duty 2 - $US14.5 million - During a speech at the 2005 Montreal International Game Summit, Infinity Ward cofounder Grant Collier revealed that the World War II shooter sequel and next-gen launch title cost $US14.5 million to develop.
Guild Wars - $US20-30 million - ArenaNet cofounder Jeff Strain told the Seattle Times his company spent between $US20 million and $US30 million developing their first MMO.
Guitar Hero - $US1.7 million - In a recent profile of Harmonix, BostonInno, a Boston tech/startup blog, claimed the first Guitar Hero's development budget was $US1.7 million.
Jak X - $US10 million - Jason Rubin claimed Naughty Dog's final Jak and Daxter game, produced shortly after he left Naughty Dog, cost $US10 million to develop.
King Kong - $US20 million - Michel Ancel's movie tie-in had a budget over $US20 million, according to a New York Times report about the game.
The Matrix Online - $US8.5 million - The marketing and PR spend on this now-defunct licensed online game was more than $US8.5 million, according to a former Warner Bros. marketing manager.
Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks - $US20 million - The former studio head and founder of developer Midway Studios Los Angeles (previously Paradox Development) said on her resume this fighting game spinoff had a development budget of $US20 million.
Quake 4 - $US15 million - In a 2005 profile of developer Raven Software, the Wisconsin State Journal — a local Madison, Wisconsin newspaper — reported that the shooter sequel cost around $US15 million to develop.
Psychonauts - $US11.8 million - Caroline Esmurdoc, then-COO of Double Fine, claimed in a Game Developer postmortem the company's literally mind-bending platformer had a development budget of $US11.8 million.
Anno 1701 - €8 million - A press release from developer Sunflowers pegged development costs of the strategy game at eight million euros.
Empire Earth III - $US10 million - A former Mad Doc Software producer said the strategy sequel cost $US10 million to develop.
Gears of War - $US10 million - During a speech at the London Games Summit, Mark Rein, vice president of Epic Games, said development costs on the game were "around $US10 million."
Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter - $US18 million - The first Tom Clancy title for HD consoles cost $US18 million, according to the biography of a North Carolinian news anchor and actress who appeared in the game.
Lost Planet - $US40 million - According to a 2006 Forbes report, marketing and development budgets on Capcom's game were both $US20 million, pegging total spend around $US40 million.
Red Steel - €10 million - A 2006 radio story about developers at Ubisoft's headquarters in Paris on French news station France Info revealed that the Wii launch title's development budget was 10 million euros.
Scarface: The World is Yours - $US2.5 million (audio) - The audio budget alone on the open-world crime game was $US2.5 million, according to a Gamasutra postmortem by the project's audio director, Rob Bridgett.
Test Drive Unlimited - €15 million - The development budget for this open-world racing title was 15 million euros, according to a former Eden Games project manager.
Unreal Engine 3 - $US40 million - In a CNNMoney column about Unreal Engine 3, journalist Chris Morris reported that the cost of development of Epic's third engine was more than $US40 million.
Age of Conan - kr200 million - Norwegian business publication Dagens Næringsliv reported that Funcom's fantasy MMO cost in excess of 200 million Norwegian kroner.
BioShock - $US15 million - Irrational Games' Ken Levine claimed in an MIT Q&A session that development costs on the dystopian first-person game were $US15 million.
Black College Football Experience - $US9 million - According to a former executive at now-defunct developer Nerjyzed Entertainment, the budget on this football simulation was $US9 million.
Crackdown - $US20 million - David Jones, former head of now-defunct developer Realtime Worlds, told GamesIndustry.biz the cult open-world game had a development budget of around $US20 million.
Crysis - €15 million - At the 2008 Games Convention Developers Conference in Germany, Cevat Yerli said the PC-only shooter had a development budget of 15 million euros.
Halo MMO - $US90 million - In an interview with IncGamers, Dusty Monk — a former Ensemble Studios engineer — claimed the studio's never released Halo MMO (codenamed "Titan") had a project budget of $US90 million.
Heavenly Sword - $US20 million - A former Sony Computer Entertainment Europe senior producer pegged Ninja Theory's cinematic action title at a development cost of $US20 million.
Marathon 2: Durandal - $US0.3 million - Development costs on the Xbox Live Arcade port of Bungie's 1995 FPS sequel were $US300,000, according to a Gamasutra postmortem.
Rock Band - $US20 million - According to BostonInno, the development budget on the first Rock Band was $US20 million.
Strangehold - $US30 million - In an interview with GamesIndustry.biz, former Midway Europe managing director Martin Spiess said the John Woo action game "cost around $US30 million."
Stuntman: Ignition - $US20 million - A former Paradigm Entertainment designer said the project's development budget was $US20 million.
Braid - $US0.2 million - During a GDC presentation, Jonathan Blow said he spent $US200,000 on development of his acclaimed deconstructive puzzler.
The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian - $US20 million (marketing) - The game tie-in's marketing campaign cost $US20 million, according to a former Disney special projects manager.
Gears of War 2 - $US12 million - The shooter sequel cost $US12 million to develop, according to a presentation Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney gave at a 2009 computer graphics conference.
Golden Axe: Beast Rider - $US15 million - According to a Game Developer postmortem, Sega spent $US15 million on development costs for Secret Level's HD Sega IP reboot.
Guitar Hero: Aerosmith - $US5 million (marketing) - A former RedOctane marketing associate said it cost $US5 million to market this single-artist music title.
Left 4 Dead - $US11 million (marketing) - Valve told Edge Online the company's marketing budget for the zombie game was $US11 million.
The Witcher - zł20 million - During a GDC 2012 presentation, CD Projekt RED cofounder Marcin Iwiński said the PC-only RPG had a $US2 million marketing budget. And according to the site of CD Projekt RED's parent company, the development budget on the title was almost 20 million zloty.
The Beatles: Rock Band - $US20 million (marketing) - Advertising Age said the marketing spend on Harmonix's single-artist title was $20 million.
Borderlands - $US30-35 million - In a 2012 1UP piece asking developers about game budgets, Gearbox's Randy Pitchford estimated that the RPG shooter cost between $US30 million and $US35 million.
Brütal Legend - $US24 million - In a Game Developer postmortem, Caroline Esmurdoc said Double Fine's heavy metal action game cost $US24 million to develop.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 - $US200 million - In 2009 article on the game's launch, Ben Fritz, then a reporter at the Los Angeles Times, reported that the game had a production budget between $US40 million and $US50 million, and a total launch cost — including global distribution and marketing — of $US200 million.
Fortress - $US16.5 million - A 2011 report in Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet claimed the contract for Grin's ill-fated Final Fantasy XII spinoff specified a $US16.5 million development budget for the game.
Free Realms - $US20-30 million - Development costs on Sony Online Entertainment's tween-friendly MMO were between $US20 million and $US30 million, according to an NBC News report on online games targeting younger audiences.
Ghostbusters - $US15-20 million - A local newspaper report on the game from the Fort Worth Star Telegram pegged development costs for Terminal Reality's next-gen SKUs as being between $US15 million and $US20 million.
Left 4 Dead 2 - $US25 million (marketing) - Valve's Doug Lombardi said the zombie sequel's advertising campaign cost $US25 million.
Star Wars: Clone Wars: Jedi Alliance - $US15 million - This Star Wars cartoon tie-in cost $US15 million to develop, according to a former Krome Studios project director.
God of War III - $US44 million - John Hight, then-director of product development at Sony Santa Monica, told Giant Bomb Kratos' first outing on HD consoles had a $US44 million development budget.
Gran Turismo 5 - $US60 million - In an interview with Autoweek, Gran Turismo creator Kazunori Yamauchi said the fifth entry in the racing franchise cost $US60 million to develop.
Heavy Rain - €40 million - At the Polish gaming industry conference, Quantic Dream CEO Guillaume de Fondaumiere said the company's first title for Sony cost 16.7 million euros to develop and total spend on the game amounted to somewhere around 40 million euros.
Stargate Worlds - $US25 million - Development costs on this unreleased licence-based online game were more than $US25 million, according to a former Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment producer.
Allods Online - $US12 million - According to a press release, development costs on this Russian MMORPG were $US12 million, allegedly making it the most expensive game development project in Russian history.
Battlefield 3 - $US2.75 million (Facebook marketing) - In Facebook's first investor call, COO Sheryl Sandberg said publisher Electronic Arts spent $US2.75 million on Facebook ads alone for the shooter sequel.
Call of Duty: Elite - $US50 million - On their resume, a former Activision vice president of digital operations for Call of Duty said the franchise's service component cost $US50 million to "develop and launch."
Dead Space 2 - $US5-10 million (marketing) - According to a document from the advertising industry Effie Awards, EA's media expenditures on the sci-fi horror sequel's "Your Mum Hates Dead Space 2" marketing campaign were between $US5 million and $US10 million.
Dead Island - zł40 million - Techland marketing director Pawel Kopinski told Polish newspaper Gazeta Prawna the development cost on the open-world zombie game was around 40 million zloty.
Homefront - $US50 million - THQ's attempt to take on Call of Duty had a $US50 million development budget, according to a former Kaos Studios producer.
Real Racing 2 - $US2 million - In an interview with a mobile game site, Firemint said it spent $US2 million developing this mobile racing sim sequel.
Rift - $US60-70 million - In an interview with Develop, former Trion Worlds CEO Lars Buttler said the development budget on Trion's first game was more than $US50 million. And an Effie Awards document pegged the cost of the game's marketing campaign as being between $US10 million to $US20 million.
Star Wars: The Old Republic - $US200 million - A story on the Los Angeles Times' Hero Complex blog said the science-fiction MMO had a development budget of "nearly $US200 million."
Warhammer 40k: Dark Millenium Online - $US30 million - Former THQ executive Danny Bilson told Eurogamer last year the publisher spent around $US30 million on this licensed MMO before the title was cancelled.
The Witcher II - zł25 million - Marcin Iwiński said the marketing budget for the initial PC release of CD Projekt RED's RPG sequel was $US5 million. And a recent story from Polish newspaper Gazeta Prawna pegged the game's development costs at 25 million zloty.
DC Universe Online - $US50 million - According to the Los Angeles Times, Sony Online Entertainment's superhero MMO had "a [development] cost of more than $US50 million."
Ghost Recon: Future Soldier - €50 million - Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot revealed to Eurogamer that the company's total investment in the tactical military game was 50 million euros.
Papo & Yo - $US1.5 million - While talking to Kotaku last year, Vander Caballero, cofounder of developer Minority Media, said the favela-set indie title cost $US1.5 million.
The Secret World - $US50 million - Costs on this MMO were in excess of $US50 million, according to a former Funcom executive product manager.
1666 - $US35 million - The contract between Patrice Désilets and THQ, released as part of Désilets' lawsuit against Ubisoft, estimated development costs of $US35 million for his Assassin's Creed followup.
Beyond: Two Souls - $US27 million - According to French general interest weekly publication Le Figaro Magazine, the Quantic Dream drama's development budget was 20 million euros ($27 million).
Defiance - $US70 million - A Wall Street Journal report claimed the game component of the game/television hybrid cost $US70 million, a cost split evenly between Syfy and Trion Worlds. In comparison, the paper said the budget of the first season of the television show was $US40 million.
Disney Infinity - $US100 million - Citing persons close to the game's production, both The Wall Street Journal's Ben Fritz and Variety's Marc Graser reported that game development and toy production costs amounted to more than $US100 million.
Destiny - $US140 million - The leaked initial development contract for the game authorised payments totaling up to $US140 million to cover Bungie's development and limited marketing efforts (ViDocs and other marketing assets) prior to the game's beta. As the contract also specifies, Bungie's marketing costs — limited to $US1 million — are separate from Activision's own marketing expenses on Destiny.
Watch Dogs - $US68 million - Stéphane Decroix, an executive producer on the project at Ubisoft Montreal, told French business publication Challenges Ubisoft's contemporary open-world title has a development budget in excess of 50 million euros ($68 million).
The above list is obviously incomplete. If you know how much a video game cost, let me know. Or tell someone at Kotaku.
superannuation is a self-described "internet extraordinaire" residing somewhere in the Pacific Time Zone. Follow him on Twitter.